Life of Major General Henry Lee
Cecil B. Hartley
Lee ordered to join Marion on the Pedee—Movements of General Greene—Battle of Hobkirk's Hill—Lord Rawdon determines to evacuate Camden—Exultation of Greene—Lee and Marion capture Fort Watson—Colonel Watson joins Lord Rawdon—They menace Greene but do not attack him—Lee and Marion besiege and capture Fort Motte—Noble conduct of Mrs. Motte—Lee proceeds to Fort Granby—General Sumter captures the post at Orangeburgh.
ON resolving to carry the war into South Carolina, General Greene detached Lee to join Marion on the Pedee. Taking the road by Cross Creek and Downing Creek, Lee effected his junction with Marion on the 8th of March 1781.
General Greene appeared before Camden with the design of attacking Lord Rawdon who was stationed at that post, but finding it too strong, he fell back about two miles and took post at Hobkirk's Hill. Here he was attacked by Lord Rawdon on the 25th of April. A hard fought battle ensued, and through some false move on the part of his troops Greene was obliged to retreat. Rawdon did not pursue; but returned to Camden.
Greene now expected to be driven to the mountains; but Rawdon, learning that Lord Cornwallis was gone to Virginia, determined to evacuate Camden. Greene writing to General Davis, said, “Rawdon is preparing to evacuate Camden; that place was the key of the enemy's line of forts; they will now all fall or be evacuated. All will now go well. * * I shall march immediately to the Congaree.[”]
His words were prophetic; for now commenced the final reconquest of the Southern States, in which Lee was destined to take an active part.
The first object of attack was Fort Watson.
Determined, says Lee,[note 1] to carry this post without delay, Marion and Lee sat down before it early in the evening; not doubting, from the information received, that the garrison must soon be compelled to surrender, for want of water, with which it was supplied from an adjacent lake, and from which the garrison might be readily and effectually secluded. In a very few hours the customary mode of supplying the post with water was completely stopped; and had the information received been correct, a surrender of the garrison could not have been long delayed. The ground selected by Colonel Watson for his small stockade, was an Indian mount, generally conceived to be the cemetery of the tribe inhabiting the circumjacent region: it was at least thirty feet high, and surrounded by table land. Captain M'Koy, the commandant, saw at once his inevitable fate, unless he could devise some other mode of procuring water, for which purpose he immediately cut a trench from his fosse, (secured by abatis) to the river, which passed close to the Indian mount. Baffled in their expectation, and destitute both of artillery and intrenching tools, Marion and Lee despaired of success; when Major Mayham, of South Carolima, accompanying the brigadier, suggested a plan, which was not sooner communicated than gratefully adopted. He proposed to cut down a number of suitable trees in the nearest wood, and with them to erect a large, strong, oblong pen, to be covered on the top with a floor of logs, and protected on the side opposite to the fort with a breastwork of light timber. To the adjacent farms dragoons were despatched for axes, the only necessary tool, of which a sufficient number being soon collected, relays of working parties were allotted for the labor; some to cut, some to convey, and some to erect. Major Mayham undertook the execution of his plan, which was completely finished before the morning of the 23d, effective as to the object, and honorable to the genius of the inventor. The besieged was, like besieger, unprovided with artillery, and could not interrupt the progress of a work, the completion of which must produce immediate submission.
A party of riflemen, being ready, took post in the Mayham tower the moment it was completed; and a detachment of musketry, under cover of the riflemen, moved to make a lodgment in the enemy's ditch, supported by the legion infantry with fixed bayonets. Such was the effect of the fire from the riflemen, having thorough command of every part of the fort, from the relative super eminence of the tower, that every attempt to resist the lodgment was crushed. The commandant, finding every resource cut off, hung out the white flag. It was followed by a proposal to surrender, which issued in a capitulation. This incipient operation having been happily effected by the novel and effectual device of Major Mayham, to whom the commandants very gratefully expressed their acknowledgment, Marion and Lee, preceded by the legion cavalry under Major Rudulph, who had been detached on the day subsequent to the investiture of the fort, turned their attention to Lieutenant Colonel Watson, now advancing from below to relieve his garrison. Knowing that the fall of Camden was closely connected with the destruction of Watson, the American commandants viewed with delight his approach; and having disposed of the prisoners, moved to join the cavalry, now retiring in front of the enemy.
After the surrender, Lee received orders from Greene to rejoin him; but these orders were countermanded, when he was on his way, and he returned to Marion, joining him near the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree, where he was waiting for the advance of Col. Watson. The object in view was to prevent Watson from joining Lord Rawdon at Camden; but Watson eluded their pursuit and effected the junction. Thus reinforced, Rawdon marched out of Camden to attack Greene, but finding him in too strong a position, on Colonel's Creek, he returned to Camden; it was then that he determined to abandon Camden, as mentioned above. Meantime, Lee and Marion were engaged in the siege of Fort Motte.
On the 10th of May the evacuation of Camden took place, and the British General proceeded to Nelson's ferry, with the expectation of crossing the Santee in time to dislodge Marion and Lee, still prosecuting the siege of Fort Motte. Previous to his lordship's departure, he burnt the jail, the mills, and some private houses, and destroyed all the stores which he could not take with him. He carried off four or five hundred negroes, and all the most obnoxious loyalists accompanied him.
As soon as Greene was informed of the retreat of the enemy, persuaded that Rawdon's first effort would be directed to relieve Fort Motte, he advanced towards the Congaree, determined to pass that river, if necessary, and cover the operations of the besieging corps.
This post was the principal depot of the convoys from Charleston to Camden, and sometimes of those destined for Fort Granby and Ninety-Six. A large new mansion house, belonging to Mrs. Motte, situated on a high and commanding hill, had been selected for this establishment. It was surrounded with a deep trench, along the interior margin of which was raised a strong and lofty parapet. To this post had been regularly assigned an adequate garrison of about one hundred and fifty men, which was now accidentally increased by a small detachment of dragoons, which had arrived from Charleston a few hours before the appearance of the American troops, on its way to Camden with despatches for Lord Rawdon. Captain M'Pherson commanded, an officer highly and deservedly respected.
Opposite to Fort Motte, to the north, stood another hill, where Mrs. Motte, having been dismissed from her mansion, resided in the old farmhouse. On this height Lieutenant Colonel Lee with his corps took post, while Brigadier Marion occupied the eastern declivity of the ridge on which the fort stood.
Very soon the fort was completely invested; and the six pounder was mounted on a battery erected in Marion's quarter, for the purpose of raking the northern face of the enemy's parapet, against which Lee was preparing to advance. M'Pherson was unprovided with artillery, and depended for safety upon timely relief, not doubting its arrival before the assailant could push his preparations to maturity.
The vale which runs between the two hills admitted our approach within four hundred yards of the fort. This place was selected by Lee to break ground. Relays of working parties being provided for every four hours, and some of the negroes from the neighboring plantations being brought, by the influence of Marion, to our assistance, the works advanced with rapidity. Such was their forwardness on the 10th, that it was determined to summon the commandant.
A flag was accordingly despatched to Captain M'Pherson, stating to him with truth our relative situation, expressing with decision the fate which awaited him, and admonishing him to avoid the disagreeable consequences of an arrogant temerity. To this the captain replied, that, disregarding consequences, he should continue to resist to the last moment in his power. The retreat of Rawdon was known in the evening to the besiegers, and in the course of the night a courier arrived from General Greene, confirming that event, urging redoubled activity, and communicating his determination to hasten to their support. Urged by these strong considerations, Marion and Lee persevered throughout the night in pressing the completion of their works. On the next day, Rawdon reached the country opposite to Fort Motte; and in the succeeding night, encamping on the highest ground in his route, the illumination of his fires gave the joyful annunciation of his approach to the despairing garrison. But the hour was close at hand, when this fallacious joy was to be converted into sadness.
The large mansion in the centre of the encircling trench, left but a few yards of the ground within the enemy's works uncovered: burning the house must force their surrender.
Persuaded that our ditch would be within arrow shot before noon of the next day, Marion and Lee determined to adopt this speedy mode of effecting their object. Orders were instantly issued to prepare bows and arrows, with missive combustible matter. This measure was reluctantly adopted; for the destruction of private property was repugnant to the principles which swayed the two commandants, and upon this occasion was peculiarly distressing. The devoted house was a large, pleasant edifice, intended for the summer residence of the respectable owner, whose deceased husband had been a firm friend to his oppressed country, and whose only marriageable daughter was the wife of Major Pinckney, an officer in the South Carolina line, who had fought and bled in his country's cause, and was now a prisoner with the enemy. These considerations powerfully forbade the execution of the proposed measure; but there were others of much cogency, which applied personally to Lieutenant Colonel Lee, and gave a new edge to the bitterness of the scene.
Encamping contiguous to Mrs. Motte's dwelling, this officer had, upon his arrival, been requested in the most pressing terms to make her house his quarters. The invitation was accordingly accepted; and not only the lieutenant colonel, but every officer of his corps, off duty, daily experienced her liberal hospitality, politely proffered and as politely administered. Nor was the attention of this amiable lady confined to that class of war which never fail to attract attention. While her richly spread table presented with taste and fashion all the luxuries of her opulent country, and her sideboard offered without reserve the best wines of Europe—antiquated relics of happier days—her active benevolence found its way to the sick and to the wounded; cherishing with softest kindness infirmity and misfortune, converting despair into hope, and nursing debility into strength. Nevertheless the imperative obligations of duty must be obeyed; the house must burn, and a respectful communication to the lady of her destined loss must be made. Taking the first opportunity which offered, the next morning, Lieutenant Colonel Lee imparted to Mrs. Motte the intended measure, lamenting the sad necessity, and assuring her of the deep regret which the unavoidable act excited in his and every breast.
With the smile of complacency this exemplary lady listened to the embarrassed officer, and gave instant relief to his agitated feelings, by declaring, that she was gratified with the opportunity of contributing to the good of her country, and that she should view the approaching scene with delight. Shortly after, seeing accidentally the bow and arrows which had been prepared, she sent for Lee, and presenting him with a bow and its apparatus imported from India, she requested his substitution of these, as probably better adapted for the object than those we had provided.
Receiving with silent delight this opportune present, Lee rejoined his troops, now making ready for the concluding scene. The lines were manned, and an additional force stationed at the battery, lest the enemy, perceiving his fate, might determine to risk a desperate assault, as offering the only chance of relief. As soon as the troops reached their several points, a flag was again sent to M'Pherson, for the purpose of inducing him to prevent the conflagration and the slaughter which might ensue, by a second representation of his actual condition.
Doctor Irvin, of the legion cavalry, was charged with the flag, instructed to communicate faithfully the inevitable destruction impending, and the impracticability of relief, as Lord Rawdon had not yet passed the Santee; with an assurance that longer perseverance in vain resistance, would place the garrison at the mercy of the conqueror; who was not regardless of the policy of preventing the waste of time, by inflicting exemplary punishment, where resistance was maintained only to produce such waste. The British captain received the flag with his usual politeness, and heard patiently Irvin's explanations; but he remained immovable; repeating his determination of holding out to the last.
It was now about noon, and the rays of the scorching sun had prepared the shingle roof for the projected conflagration. The return of Irvin was immediately followed by the application of the bow and arrows. The first arrow struck, and communicated its fire; a second was shot at another quarter of the roof, and a third at a third quarter; this last also took effect, and, like the first, soon kindled a blaze. M'Pherson ordered a party to repair to the loft of the house, and by knocking off the shingles to stop the flames. This was soon perceived, and Captain Finley was directed to open his battery, raking the loft from end to end.
The fire of our six pounder, posted close to one of the gable ends of the house, soon drove the soldiers down; and no other effort to stop the flames being practicable, M'Pherson hung out the white flag. Mercy was extended, although policy commanded death, and the obstinacy of M'Pherson warranted it. The commandant, with the regulars, of which the garrison was chiefly composed, were taken possession of by Lee; while the loyalists were delivered to Marion. Among the latter was a Mr. Smith, who had been charged with burning the houses of his neighbors friendly to their country. This man consequently became very obnoxious, and his punishment was loudly demanded by many of the militia serving under the brigadier; but the humanity of Marion could not be overcome. Smith was secured from his surrounding enemies, ready to devote him, and taken under the general's protection.
M'Pherson was charged with having subjected himself to punishment, by his idle waste of his antagonists' time; and reminded as well of the opportunities which had been presented to him of saving himself and garrison from unconditional submission, as of the cogent considerations, growing out of the posture of affairs, which urged the prevention of future useless resistance by present exemplary punishment. The British officer frankly acknowledged his dependent situation, and declared his readiness to meet any consequence which the discharge of duty, conformably to his own conviction of right, might produce. Powerfully as the present occasion called for punishment, and rightfully as it might have been inflicted, not a drop of blood was shed, nor any part of the enemy's baggage taken. M'Pherson and his officers accompanied their captors to Mrs. Motte's, and partook with them in a sumptuous dinner;[note 2] soothing in the sweets of social intercourse the ire which the preceding conflict had engendered. Requesting to be permitted to return to Charleston, on parole, they were accordingly paroled and sent off in the evening to Lord Rawdon, now engaged in passing the Santee at Nelson's ferry. Soon after, General Greene, anxious for the success of his detachment against Fort Motte, attended by an escort of cavalry, reached us, for the purpose of knowing precisely our situation, and the progress of the British general, who he expected would hasten to the relief of M'Pherson, as soon as he should gain the southern banks of the Santee; to counteract which the American general had resolved, and was then engaged in preparing boats, to transport his army over the Congaree. Finding the siege prosperously concluded, he returned to camp; having directed Marion, after placing the prisoners in security, to proceed against Georgetown, and ordering Lee to advance without delay upon Fort Granby, to which place the American army would now move. As soon as the troops had finished their repast, Lee set out with his detachment, composed of horse, foot, and artillery; and marching without intermission, he approached the neighborhood of Fort Granby before the dawn of the second day. Brigadier Sumter, having recovered of his wound, as soon as he received Greene's despatch from Ramsay's mill, assembled his corps of militia. For reasons not understood by the author, the brigadier, instead of joining Greene before Camden, directed his attention to the fort of Ninety-Six and its upper communications with Charleston, Fort Granby, and Orangeburgh. He had moved from before Fort Granby, but a few days before Lee's arrival, for the purpose of forcing the small post at Orangeburgh, which he accomplished on the 14th.